Mitch Johnson, technology manager at Executive Interiors in Fresno, explains that the use of automated machinery in the production shop reduces cost, manual labor, and allows for him to look at all aspects of the business, including on the clerical side, to streamline the work process. Photo by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
New technology usually invokes images of Silicon Valley, mechanical wonders from MIT in Boston or some new consumer electronics for an eager public.
In the Central Valley, local manufacturers have been utilizing new innovations in automation and computer technology to increase production, save time, save money and take away some of the manual stress from workers on the job.
According to a 2017 report from business and government management consulting firm McKinsey Institute, automation can raise productivity growth to 1.4% annually.
Outlier Automation, a family business founded in 2019 in Fresno, is a control systems integrator that provides engineering, programming and design services for manufacturing automation in the Central Valley and across the state.
The engineers at Outlier Automation help clients with the computers that run manufacturing robotics and automated process equipment.
In 2019, founders and married couple Gina Brooks-Zak and Liz Brooks-Zak, who both mastered in engineering in college, chose to start their business in California to be closer to Liz’s family in the Central Valley — and to start their business in an area rife with opportunities.
The couple left Chicago for Fresno to start their business — and expecting a new child — to start a family.
“It’s something that a lot of people recognize that is needed and isn’t going away,” Gina said about automation. “But a lot of manufacturers don’t know where to start. There’s a whole plethora of engineering that goes into getting to that point, so we also consult on how to put automation sequences together.”
While a computer may run the automation process, Gina said, there has to be a process that can be repeatable and simple enough for a computer. The team at Outliers helps with choosing the right components and software to help companies encounter the least amount of roadblocks as they develop their process.
Outliers usually works on-site with their clients that have some operation or design knowledge. Or it works with partners to design equipment while Outliers focuses on the software and electrical side.
Liz said that while Outliers is the expert in automation technology, they still need feedback from their customers for the automation processes to be applied successfully.
“We work in a lot of different types of industries, and we get to see what things are trending in these different spaces. We bring that together and apply the best solutions for clients, regardless of their industry,” Liz said.
In the Central Valley, their clients include players in the ag industry and food processing along with a variety of manufacturers.
Because of recent labor shortages across all industries, including in manufacturing, Gina said that there is more interest from manufacturers in using robotics.
“A lot of people are looking into how they can use robotics or other types of automation to do what a person was doing before. You can have a one-time capital investment and the robot will do what manual labor people would have done — without getting tired,” Gina said.
But it’s not just about replacing a labor force, it’s also to ensure better quality control with the help of computers and robotics.
Though there is a societal fear that robots will replace humans in countless industries and jobs, Gina said that a lot of the work robots do now are jobs that are very difficult for a person to do for a long time anyway.
A lot of equipment being used in the area is currently 20-30 years old, so a part of the job for the team at Outliers is helping clients troubleshoot their machines, fix them and help clients understand the equipment. This includes training onsite workers.
“I’m passionate about helping people improve their production from a purely business sense. It’s interesting to see how you can improve and make a lot more money for our clients — it’s one of the exciting parts of automation,” Gina said.
In 2019, Executive Interiors, a cabinetmaker in Fresno, installed some robotic machinery to save manpower and time.
That year there was a $1 million investment into robotic machinery and more than $60,000 for software costs to be used for cutting wood to build cabinets and to store and organize materials.
Because of the labor crunch, Tim Russell, vice president of Executive Interiors, said that they’ve brought in more new equipment to do the work.
Russell was really interested in automation and CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) manufacturing when the technology was first rolling out, and was eager to get in on the trend.
“I’ve always looked at it from a standpoint of being more heavily equipped on the technology side, and have a smaller, more qualified labor pool,” Russell said.
While automation started with robotics in the shop — machines that cut wood, store and handle of materials so workers wouldn’t have to manually move them with forklifts — the automation process expanded to other parts of the business.
With more robots handling the materials, there is less chance for workers to injure themselves on the job when handling heavy pieces of wood, keeping costs for health insurance and lost work hours down.
“It’s almost as if we looked at all the different areas of a company, and slowly found a technical solution for that particular area,” said Mitch Johnson, tech manager at Executive Interiors.
Laser and computer technology allows engineers at Executive Interiors to measure a space with a quick scan with extreme accuracy.
Technology and automation are utilized for scheduling, price estimation, the purchasing of materials, processing of orders and any aspect of the business that the team feels could be improved upon.
The team at Executive Interiors is currently trying to implement a new system to help streamline their shipping activity, allowing for the team to track the orders they sent out.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the company was on pace to have 35% volume increase since 2019, but a lot of projects were shelved in the 2020 due to the pandemic, especially for projects in the medical and restaurant industry.
Johnson said that there is still equipment that isn’t online yet, but once it is in, it will help streamline the assembly process for cabinets.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes in to what we do. We are getting bigger customers asking us if we can do more of the auto/CAD side of it so they can implement it in their building models and they want us to accommodate for that. Organization is the biggest thing going on right now and not letting stuff fall through the cracks,” Russell said.